The 1 Timothy 2:12 Conundrum: I Do Not PERMIT a Woman….

10th in a series.

Get your Bible study hat on! 1 Timothy 2:12 is the classic prooftext for saying that women should not serve as either elders or pastors. I will include verse 11, as well, to add some context:

(11) Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. (12) I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.

This translation from the ESV makes it seem pretty straight-forward. Not a whole lot of mystery here. No women teaching or having spiritual authority. This is how most Christians have read this verse, throughout the centuries of church history. Why do we even need to talk about it, right?

Nevertheless, evangelical egalitarian scholars of late bring out some interesting observations and questions about this verse. Some will balk at this point, claiming that any challenge to a traditional interpretation of Scripture is, by necessity, an attack on Scripture itself.

However, this is simply incorrect. A possibility? Yes. By necessity? No. The church is always strengthened, not weakened, whenever challenges are faced.

Evidence is evidence, and so any honest look at the Scriptures requires an honest examination of the evidence at hand. But whether or not the evidence surveyed is sufficient to overthrow the traditional interpretation, is an entirely different matter.

In this blog post, and the next two following, I will focus on primarily three challenges and difficulties that egalitarians and complementarians cite, that stem from this single verse (verse 12). Also, how do the differing sides in this debate respond to such challenges, with evidence?

That Little Word “Permit”

First, I want to focus on this highlighted word, “permit.” “I do not permit a woman to…”

Effectively, this is indicating that Paul is not allowing some specific behavior. The question that many egalitarian scholars raise is the possibility of a particular, unique cultural situation, being addressed in this letter. Is Paul “not permitting” something, due to local conditions in the church in Ephesus, which is where Timothy, the recipient of this letter from Paul, is located?

This argument is not one that can be dismissed so easily. After all, Paul also forbids women from adorning themselves with “braided hair” (1 Timothy 2:9 ESV), and I do not know of any Bible teacher today who goes around scolding women for their unacceptable hairstyles in church. And what about jewelry and expensive women’s clothing? Could it be that there is a specific cultural setting at play, here in Ephesus?

…women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works (1 Timothy 2:9-10 ESV).

But a more important reason for possibly rethinking 1 Timothy has do with why the letter was written in the first place. Egalitarian scholars emphasize that Paul wrote to Timothy specifically to address the issue of false teaching happening in the Ephesian church. Paul had charged Timothy to “remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:3 ESV). Furthermore, “Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (1 Timothy 1:6-7 ESV).

In other words, certain people were infiltrating the church in Ephesus, teaching things for which they had absolutely no clue what they were talking about. Paul wanted Timothy to put a stop to what was going on in Ephesus. So, who were these “certain persons?”

The implication is that Paul’s restriction here, with “do not permit,” in 1 Timothy 2:12, is not universal and therefore, not applicable to all times and all places. Here are just some of the points of evidence that are cited, to support this claim:

  • The Greek word for “permit,” epitrepō, is not part of a Greek command tense. When Paul is chastising Christians for improper behavior, he normally does this using command tense verbs. For example, in verse 11, the word “let” is a command. “Not permit” in verse 12 is not a command. If Paul were forbidding women to serve as elders, at all times and all places, why would he not issue this directive in the form of a command, as he does in other areas of ethical teaching?
  • Furthermore, as the argument goes, the use of “permit” elsewhere in the Bible is normally associated with a specific, limited, local situation. To treat “do not permit” as a universal norm would go against the typical New Testament usage of the term.
  • Notice also that Paul says “I do not permit a woman.” It is curious as to why Paul uses the word “woman” in the singular, and not the plural sense. Paul’s previous command in 1 Timothy 2:8 was to “men,” in the plural, and not in the singular. Why would Paul shift from a plural reference to a singular reference? Is it possible that Paul is speaking in the context of a woman married to a man, as opposed to addressing the behavior of women, in a church service?
  • If Paul had a particular woman; such as a woman married to a man, or women in general, in view, this would fit with the suggestion that the “certain persons,” (1 Timothy 1:6-7) who were promoting false teaching in Ephesus, were women.
  • The reference to a singular “woman” raises yet another question as to the context of the passage. Historically, Bible translations, such as the NIV, have put headings, at the top of 1 Timothy 2, like “Instructions on Worship.” This suggests that the passage is about appropriate behavior in a church service. The problem with doing this type of thing is that these headings are simply not found in the original text. Many egalitarians protest that a church service setting is not in view. Rather, the setting is more general than that, talking about the personal lives of Christians, as in perhaps domestic relations between a wife and her husband. Notice that the ESV has softened its heading to be understood in a more neutral way, “Pray for All People, which may or may not refer to a Christian worship service.

The larger context that egalitarian scholars point out is that Ephesus was known for its great temple to Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, as well as being a fertility goddess. This temple was enormous, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Egalitarian scholars suggest that the influence of Artemis pagan worship, which included a male and female priesthood,1 was so strong in Ephesus, that it spilled over into the Ephesian church, influencing a number of the women to succumb to heresy.

Historical evidence indicates the Artemisian religion was so dominating, that women undergoing childbirth would feel compelled to offer sacrifices to the pagan deities. Perhaps Paul knew that some of the women in the church were continuing to have one foot in the church and another foot in the world, and participating in such pagan rituals. In order to stop the heresy from spreading, Paul was seeking to silence these renegade women, or perhaps at least the unamed leader of the women, or perhaps wives having a wrong influence over their husbands. Instead, these particular women (or a particular woman) needed to learn Christian truth properly, and to learn so quietly!

If this analysis holds, it would indicate that, yes, the situation in Ephesus was unique, which is why Paul’s “I do not permit a woman,” should only be taken as addressing the situation in Ephesus, and not something applicable to all times and all places. But is the evidence to support this argument strong enough to persuade?

Mmmmph! Perhaps the Egalitarians Get It Right?…. Or Do They? A Complementarian Response

The complementarian scholarly response is to say, “NO.” It is true that much of what Paul has in mind in 1 Timothy is to address false teaching creeping into the churches. But it does not necessarily follow that every detail in the letter is addressing matters of false teaching. Instead, if we consider that Paul was writing 1 Timothy, after having had years of experience in planting churches, it would be reasonable to conclude that Paul had many “lessons to be learned” that would be applicable to all churches, and not just to the church in Ephesus. Here are some points of evidence that complementarians cite:

  • For example, the verses being examined are part of a larger passage of directives given to both women and men. Looking at an earlier part of that passage, 1 Timothy 2:8, gives us a clue: “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling” (ESV). Notice the phrase “in every place.” If this group of directives that Paul is giving is strictly applicable only to Ephesus, then the qualification “in every place” would have no meaning. Instead, this would indicate that Paul’s directives are applicable everywhere he has been ministering, not just in Ephesus.
  • To think that Paul was only concerned about false teaching creeping into the Ephesian church, specifically, ignores the fact that Paul talks a lot about false teaching in plenty of his other letters! To insist otherwise is to dismiss the very ad-hoc nature of Paul’s letters, which all tended to touch on various topics, as matters arose to his attention, when writing specific churches or specific people.
  • Some egalitarian scholars contend that the false teaching in Ephesus, that Paul is critiquing, closely matches the Gnostic heresy of the early church, that exalted the feminine above the masculine (a future blog post in this series will detail this). But complementarian scholars point out that the clear evidence for the Gnostic heresy historically comes from the 2nd century A.D., and not from the 1st century, when 1 Timothy was written. To extrapolate from the 2nd century context back into a 1st century context requires the demonstration of evidence that we simply do not yet have.
  • Paul elsewhere (1 Timothy 3:2) gives the qualifications for overseer as being a “one woman man,” which many would say, implies being male. The same qualifications are also found in Paul’s letter to Titus, whose church was in Crete, hundreds of miles away (see Titus 1:6 ESV). This would argue against the possibility that Paul’s instructions to Timothy in Ephesus were only limited to Ephesus. The appeal to Ephesus as a unique, cultural situation loses its force, thereby lending this verse to having a more universal and non-time bound application.
  • The claim that the false teachers Paul had in mind were women, is difficult to sustain, since Paul specifically names Hymenaeus and Alexander, who were men, as false teachers (1 Timothy 1:19-20 ESV). Paul does not name any women specifically as false teachers in either of his letters to Timothy.
  • Finally, coming back to that little word “permit.” Notice that the use of “permit” is stated in the negative here, as in “I do not permit.” The fact that it is negated, indicates that the negative use of “permit,” simply can not mean a local, time-bound application, as many egalitarians claim. Instead, it must mean an unlimited, timeless application.2

There are several additional, nuanced arguments advanced by both egalitarians and complementarians, on the subject of “is this just a non-universal, limited cultural application?” But hopefully you get the idea how this tit-for-tat works among scholars who debate these issues. No one gets a free ride here.3

But there is more to this verse, namely 1 Timothy 2:12, that requires further consideration, revealing some other tough problems. Stay tuned for the next blog post….


1. According to research done by S.M. Baugh, in his essay, “A Foreign World: Ephesus in the First Century,” in Women in the Church, Third Edition , editors Andreas Kostenberger and Thomas Schreiner, ( p.34ff), the Artemis cult in Ephesus did have female and male priests, and many egalitarian scholars concur. So if this analysis holds true, then N.T. Wright is entirely incorrect in saying that there were only (or primarily) female priests in the Artemisian cult, as Wright states in a popular YouTube video.  Wright’s egalitarian argument hangs a lot on the claim that the Artemisian cult had essentially an all-female priesthood.  

2. The language of not permitting “a woman” (singular) to teach/exercise-or-assume authority over “a man” (singular), does not get a whole lot of attention in the complementarian literature I have surveyed. It is generally assumed that Paul is not addressing any particular woman or man, but rather women and men as gender categories. For example, Andreas Köstenberger argues that the change from plural to singular, in verse 12, serves as a “topical frame indicating a change of subject…..most likely in order to prepare for the reference to Eve in verse 13.” Where it gets really tricky for complementarians is whether or not this restriction in verse 12 applies to all women and all men, in a corporate church setting. Does this mean that any man can teach a woman? What if the woman has been a growing Christian believer for many years, and the man has only been a Christian for a week? Does this permit that young Christian man to teach a mature woman in the faith? Most probably not, but it does leave the question open as to whether or not teaching/authority is the domain of men in general, in a local church, or is this particularly the domain of the elders only; that is, an all male eldership, and therefore not applicable to non-elders? Complementarians themselves are divided on this question.  

3. It bears saying that a common objection to 1 Timothy 2, in general, promoted by egalitarians, is that this passage MUST be culturally-limited in application, otherwise, Paul’s command that women should not wear “braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire,” (verse 9) of that they should “remain quiet” (verse 12) in church, is rendered absurd. But such an answer does really address what the specific cultural situation Paul had in mind. Rather than neutralizing the Word of God here, on this point, we should seek to try to find out what these particular commands/statements by Paul, actually mean. Granted, there have been traditional scholars who have misread this passage, so the egalitarians have some substance to their objection. But we must not allow that to distract from an honest, open look at the text. Yes, there are difficulties with this text, but recent scholarship has provided us some very helpful points of evidence that can help us to piece together a coherent understand of what Paul is after. With respect to the “braided hair” part, we have evidence that braided hair, along with excessive jewelry was a sign of prostitution, or the flaunting of wealth, in the first century.  In other words, Paul is asking his readers not to dress like prostitutes, or flaunt their wealth (see Urban Legends of the New Testament, by David Croteau, p. 211-214). Regarding the request that women are to “remain quiet,” we must follow the principle of having Scripture interpret Scripture, and recall 1 Corinthians 11 teachings about women praying and prophesying. Surely, women are not remaining quiet here!! Instead, it is best to understand this within the context of Paul encouraging the women to “learn quietly.” In a day and age where few women, if any, received formal education, Paul’s command here is a radical one, affirming the women SHOULD be educated!! Instead of dismissing this as a cultural “one-off”, we as Christians should see Paul’s writing here for what it is, a radical affirmation of the dignity and worth of women.  

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

6 responses to “The 1 Timothy 2:12 Conundrum: I Do Not PERMIT a Woman….

  • Sarah Joiner

    Hi Clarke, you say: “Furthermore, as the argument goes, the use of “permit” elsewhere in the Bible is normally associated with a specific, limited, local situation. To treat “do not permit” as a universal norm would go against the typical New Testament usage of the term.” Please can you give some examples of how the word permit is used in this way? Thanks.


    • Clarke Morledge

      Hi, Sarah,

      Better than me trying to list them all out, you should look at Australian theologian Marg Mowczko’s post, where she lists them all out. She makes the case that the verb “permit” always (at least perhaps, nearly always) refers to a temporary, local condition:

      Here are a couple of examples, and you can decide for yourself:

      Matthew 8:21
      John 19:38
      Hebrews 6:3

      I thought her example of Hebrews 6:3 was a bit sketchy, but I will give her the benefit of the doubt, to see if her case can be sustained elsewhere.

      Compare this to British theologian, Andrew Wilson, on the question:

      Wilson challenges this argument as misleading, for the same type of verb form of “permit,” if read in the same manner as Mowczko (and other egalitarians) suggests, for other similar verbs, runs the risk of warping Paul’s other teachings in 1 Timothy . For example:

      ‘But if we take the present tense as grounds for limiting Paul’s instructions to one specific situation, …, then an awful lot of Paul’s teaching in this letter unravels. “God wishes that all will be saved” would become “God wishes now that all will be saved, but this could change in due course” (2:4). “Children should learn to show godliness to their own household” would be Paul’s advice in a moment, not a universal teaching (5:4). When we read that “the law is not laid down for the just,” we would have to conclude, “but it might be in the future” (1:9). And so on, and so on. This is simply not how the Greek present tense works.’

      All I can say is that I am not a Greek scholar. So when the big guns in the world of New Testament scholarship start arguing about “how the Greek present tense works,” I know that I am in over my head.

      On this point, I think Wilson has a stronger case than Mowczko. But the “permit” argument is simply one argument among several, that seeks to make the case that Paul’s injunction against women teaching/assuming-authority, is merely addressing a local situation in Ephesus, as opposed to having a universal application.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Sarah Joiner

    Thanks Clarke. Really appreciate this detailed response.


  • Should Women Serve as Elders, Deacons, or Pastors? | Veracity

    […] The 1 Timothy 2:12 Conundrum: I Do Not PERMIT a Woman…. […]


  • Clarke Morledge

    Here is a good example of where the stalemate is on how to interpret difficult texts of Scripture:

    Denny Burk engages N.T. Wright’s statement that the witness of Mary Magadelene and Phoebe undermine complementarian arguments for having a male-only eldership, when it fact, many complementarians find support for their view from Mary and Magadelene and Phoebe.

    Baylor Historian Beth Allison Barr, a very accomplished female scholar of religious history, finds Burks’ reasoning incredulous:

    Here is a response by Abigail Dodds, a woman (obviously) and writer for Desiring God:

    Read for yourself to see how some really smart Christians pass one another like ships in the night. Good grief. Lord help us all.


  • Clarke Morledge

    Just reading a commentary by veteran Bible translator Bill Mounce, who is complementarian, about 1 Timothy 2:

    “Apparently the ancients did not have the same exegetical problems with the passage as do moderns”

    I wonder why that is??

    Then, later Mounce quotes George Bernard Shaw, who viewed the Apostle Paul as the “eternal enemy of women.” It is interesting to note that many liberal, critical scholars dismiss 1 Timothy as not having been written by Paul, at all, due to it supposed misogynist content. And yet, many evangelical scholars will bend over backwards to defend Paul here, but not defend the traditional interpretation of this passage, that liberal, critical scholars find to be readily apparent to them.


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